A Good Death

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“Veterinarians deal with death the most out of any medical profession.”

“Does it ever really get any easier, euthanization?” asked the first year student.

“Every euthanization is difficult, but some hit harder than others…”
– from “Vet School” (TV show, NatGeo Wild)

Is there any such thing as a good death? A beautiful, peaceful, passing?

Is there a right way and a wrong way for the owners, scratch that, the human family of a beloved companion animal to act, when they have to free a well loved furry family member from life, because of illness or injury? When the vet is there, administering the fatal meds, is there a proper or expected or normal way to act? Or do they see a whole range of responses?

Strange questions to ask, I know, but you ought to be used to strange questions from me by now.

Our vet cried, along with Rhiannon and I, when we put dear Kasha to sleep, on Nov 2. I’m pretty sure it was my actions that caused that.

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Let me back up, and set the scene… Kasha was 12 or 13 years old, quite old for a giant of a dog, weighing over 100#. She was a shelter dog, rescued from the ASPCA when less than a year old. She had been a member of the family a long, long, time.

Kasha had developed multiple issues, including deafness, a heart condition, gallbladder problems, and then, canine degenerative disc disease began taking a huge toll on her, worsening dramatically in August. She had muscle spasms in her rear thighs and legs, and stiffness, then finally started having a hard time getting her rear legs up, standing or walking. She just couldn’t coordinate her back legs properly.

I watched her those last two weeks with her spinal issues weighing heavily on my mind. I had just been told that my own back pain wasn’t just scoliosis or a slipped disc.

No, nothing is ever that simple with me. Instead, I have “severe multilevel degenerative disc disease” of pretty much my whole spine. And Kasha had the canine equivalent.

So the question on my mind that last few weeks was, “is she in as much pain as I am?” Because I was in a lot of pain, with sharp pains in my spine, feeling discs moving around, sciatica in my hips making it hard to get comfortable, no matter what position I tried.

Did she feel that way? I don’t think so, at least not until the last few days, and I dosed her with pain meds then, while we waited for it to be Monday, and the vet able to come…

Books on grieving pet loss all say when you have to be the one to make the call, that so-dreaded and very final decision, that everyone feels guilty to some extent.

I didn’t. It couldn’t have been any clearer, watching this beautiful, still so-very-loving, old friend, drag herself around with her front legs, unable to stand her rear up without assistance. How affectionate she was those last few weeks, relishing all the extra attention she was getting…

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We were lucky, and a local vet has just started doing house calls. She had known we were almost there, and was waiting to get the call… and then it was clearly, so clearly, time.

The vet was running late that day, but it turned out to be for the best, I think. We had moved Kasha out into the yard, and as the sun fell and the light began to die, we brought candles, many candles, outside.

For an hour or so, Rhiannon and I sat beside Kasha, lavishing her with Love, expensive treats, and cheese. We told her how much she meant to us, swapped stories about what a good dog she’d been, shared the funny stories, and commemorated her life.

We were ready, when the vet arrived. She quietly asked questions, to understand the situation better. We managed to stop crying long enough to answer them. I suspect our tear-streaked faces told her more than enough.

The vet was gentle and patient, and Kasha was soon sedated, nearly asleep, her head in my lap… the vet waited until we were ready, to give that final injection.

My forehead rested on Kasha’s, one hand cradling her head, the other in Rhiannon’s tight grip, as tears streamed like a river over Kasha’s head. I whispered to her that it was okay, that she should fly free, my beautiful girl, away from the pain, and that we’d be okay.

Kasha’s nose against my leg told me when her breathing slowed, and stopped.

I don’t know how it is for other people in the same situation.

But as deaths go, this one was peaceful, reverential, sacred. An act of mercy, a setting free, done with so very much Love. I can only hope my own passing, when it comes, is such a gentle one.

And maybe that’s why the vet cried. I don’t suppose it’s every day she sees a sacred passing, a silently sobbing owner, forehead to forehead, eye to eye, with her beloved companion, as their soul takes flight.
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You’re in the arms of the angels, now, Kasha.
We Love you.
Now, forever, and always.


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A Deer Story: Caught In The Act

So Brazen! Inside our dog yard! (Photo taken thru screen.)

She is so brazen.

She looked up at me, startled, but unafraid, when I came out onto our screened in porch yesterday morning.

There she was, standing inside our fenced-in dog yard, stems and leaves dangling from her mouth. She looked guilty, like a kid who got caught with their hand in the cookie jar.

We’ve lived here 11 years, and this is the first time this has happened.

I gazed back at her from less than 15 feet away. She has beautiful eyes, I thought, watching her watching me, as she casually chewed her mouthful of weeds.

I’ve known her, this one particular doe, since she was a striking little fawn. There are many deer, but both she and her mother are different.

Her mother is the grand matriarch of this section of Woods, the biggest doe I’ve ever seen (with the biggest ears to match), the leader of the rest of the “girls,” many of whom are her offspring. Now she is the “old doe,” slowing down with age, and instead of twins, having single fawns.

But this daughter of hers looks ready to take her mother’s place. She was clearly different from the beginning, her coat several shades lighter than that of her twin brother and the rest of the deer. It still is, and in Winter, it is the palest silver-gray. Now she is two years old, and has twin fawns of her own.

She has always been brazen, this one.

Once, I started the car up, in the evening, flipped on the headlights, and there she was, standing right in front of the car. I waited for her to move, as her companions had.

But instead, she looked at me, and stamped her hoof imperiously, before ever so slowly turning around. Her tail went up, and the headlights lit it up. I watched as the hairs spread out; it reminded me somehow of a peacock’s tail. I didn’t know they could do that – control the spread of the white hairs, and she spread them like a fan for me to see. It was beautiful, the hairs shimmering, crystalline white, in the light.

This doe reminds me of a goat I used to have, named Molly, who was just that color. She has as much personality as a goat, that much is for certain, and in case you’ve never had goats, well, they have nearly as much personality & intelligence as a dog.

As I gazed at the doe in my dog yard, my newly awakened brain surveyed the fence running around it. That fence would hold a goat, I thought, unless it climbed over it. I began pondering how she was going to get out of there – and how she got in.

I needn’t have worried.

When she finished chewing her mouthful, staring at me the whole time, but with her body calm, her white tail relaxed, she nonchalantly ambled over to the fence, nibbling as she went. With one graceful leap, from a standstill, she was over the 42″ high fence, and began nibbling away on the other side.

So graceful. So beautiful. So easy.

She continued her grazing around the outside of the dog yard, and I watched her a long time.

Suddenly she alerted, her eyes staring intently off into the Woods on the other side of the house. If I didn’t bother her, and Kodi’s careful surveillance of her didn’t bother her, then what did?

I walked across the deck to see, and standing in a very green patch, lit by the sun, was a beautiful big stag, with a gleaming rusty red coat, and a heavy rack on his head. The bucks are banding together now, and he had several with him, of all ages.

I regretted I hadn’t had my phone, and therefor my camera, with me, to get a picture of the doe in the dog yard, and the beautiful bucks.

But I shouldn’t have worried about that, either.

Grazing Outside the Jungle… err… Dog Yard…

The brazen girl came back in the afternoon, saw me on the porch swinging in my hammock chair, and, looking me in the eye, jumped the fence again, in a different place. She almost, just almost, looked like a teenager, daring me to tell her she couldn’t be in there.

She didn’t like having her picture taken, though, and was further away from the house than she’d been earlier. But it was nice of her to let me get one decent shot, the one at top.

I love the deer, especially this brazen girl, who has walked so frequently through our “yard” with her fawns in tow.

I love these Woods, and I love these mountains, the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia.

My heart has always called them home.

Day of Barking, Night of Bear

Yesterday started with barking.

It ended with a bear on our front porch.

I rather think the two are related.

At 7am, my peaceful sleep was interrupted by Kasha-dog barking like a mad thing, along with, apparently, every other dog on this side of the Mountain. Kodi, curled up in bed next to me, let out a growl that would have made a tiger proud – low and deep and very menacing.

There was some yelling, I must admit, from Rhiannon and I both, telling the dogs to stop barking. It worked for a few minutes, and then the frantic barking started again. This went on for perhaps 15 minutes, and then, finally, we all got back to sleep.

There was a lot of barking from the neighborhood dogs all day long, with Kasha & Kodi joining in, which was quite unusual – it’s usually pretty quiet up here, and there was a strange tone to their barking.

Last night, I went to bed early, and was sound asleep when the barking started again, as it approached midnight. This time, it was Kodi and Kasha together, standing in our living room and barking at our front door. They were definitely barking the “intruder alert” bark this time. Many other neighboring dogs could be heard joining in.

Rhiannon was on the phone to Ben, and I heard her say how scared she was, as I emerged from my room, pulling on clothes along the way.

“There was something on the porch!” she told me, continuing with, “There was a lot of noise!”

I looked to Kasha, the wise old girl of our house, who had finally stopped barking. The motion-activated light on the porch was not on.

I tiptoed to the door and looked out, shining a flashlight through the glass, half expecting a raccoon or something to look back, but instead saw that a full trashcan was knocked over.

I thought it had moved on, whatever it was that was large enough to knock a trashcan over. I started to open the door, telling Rhiannon to hold Kodi, who does not recall yet.

Kasha I trusted to come back, and to protect me if whatever-it-was was still there. She was going out first!

I straightened the trashcan as Kasha ran into the yard, and began barking again, although, oddly, not as urgently as before.

Shining my light on her, I saw that what I first took for simple darkness was not darkness at all – it seems black bears are hard to see in the dark! Kasha was close to it, and I ordered her back and into the house.

A bag of trash was spilled onto the grass a good 20 feet from our cabin.

The bear was moving off, and I called Rhiannon out to see it, and we watched it stroll into the bright outside lights of our neighbor’s house. The golden and brown leaves crunched under it’s feet as it moved away.

It was a quiet night after that, and today has been quiet, too.

We’ve been here over 10 years, and this was the first time I’ve seen a bear at our house. I count it a blessing, this which I know terrifies others.

It has been a lean year for mast – the acorns, hazelnuts and other forest products that the deer and the bear need to fatten up on. From what I’ve heard, bears have been living on our mountain for years, and I even saw one a couple years ago, when it crossed the road in front of my car on the way up the mountain. So I have known they were around.

But I think seeing one is a blessing, just as seeing the elusive fox is, and just as watching the fawns grow up is. There is something very special about seeing animals in the wild, rather than locked up in zoos.

We are all neighbors here on one mountain, one planet, one Earth. We are all related… mitakuye oyasin.